Sector leaders welcome government U-turn on free school meals

Fiona Simpson
Monday, November 9, 2020

Sector leaders have welcomed the government's new winter support package which includes rolling-out free school meals across the Christmas holidays and until summer 2021.

The government has pledged to fund food distribution charities. Picture: Sustain
The government has pledged to fund food distribution charities. Picture: Sustain

Last month, Conservative MPs voted against providing food for vulnerable families during school holidays despite a high-profile campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford.

However, over the weekend Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced £170m in funding for local authorities to provide free school meals over the Christmas holidays and other school holidays until March 2021 and a further £16m to support food distribution charities over Christmas.

The new winter support package also includes plans for a £220m holiday activity and food programme to run over Easter, summer and Christmas 2021 for all local authorities in England. 

“These programmes should reach all 1.4m children currently registered for free school meals and the welfare assistance grants will go beyond,” government guidance states.

The government’s new welfare package highlights plans to increase the value of healthy start vouchers for new mothers to £4.24 from £3.10.

Sector leaders have welcomed the package but have called for a long-term plan to support vulnerable families following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: “We are very pleased to see so much money going into local welfare assistance. 

“It is now vital local authorities ensure this support is given to everyone that needs it and we would encourage all areas to make the scheme accessible to those with no recourse to public funds (NRPF), who we know are in dire need.

 “We also welcome the move to protect many children from holiday hunger and ensure organisations that provide help are adequately financed. At a time when so many charities have seen a dramatic fall in their income, this will be a huge relief to all.

“However, while this money will make a difference in the short term, child poverty is not going away and is likely to get worse. The Children’s Society wants the government to introduce a long-term strategy to address the underlying factors contributing to the issue. Measures must include widening free school meal provision to all low income families who receive Universal Credit and permanently allowing those with NRPF access to this vital support. More investment must be made in children’s services and the government must ensure local welfare assistance continues to provide a much needed safety net past March 2021.”

Councillor Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) resources board, added: "Councils across the country have done an incredible job to support children and families during the pandemic and this new funding is good news to help them continue to support those facing hardship.

“The winter grant will allow councils to use the funding in the best way to help families and individuals most in need in their local community, including putting plans in place to ensure children will not go hungry in the Christmas holidays and February half-term.

“The uplift to the Healthy Start Vouchers, which is what the LGA has previously called for before the pandemic, and the extension to the holiday activities and food programme, will help children enjoy a healthy lifestyle from a young age.

“It is vital that the government uses the Spending Review to adequately fund councils so they can provide wider long-term preventative support to all households who need it.”

Rashford and charity the Food Foundation laid out some of the plans introduced by government as part of the child food poverty taskforce.

However, the taskforce has called for further commitment on recommendations including extending free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefit and expanding eligibility for healthy start vouchers.

The England and Manchester United forward became the face of a high-profile campaign calling on the government to provide free school meals over October half-term following a successful bid over the summer.

Over October half term local authorities and businesses stepped in to provide food for vulnerable families unable to access free school meals.

Rashford praised the government U-turn but said “there is still so much more to do”.

He added: “My immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough, but the intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive and they should be recognised for that. 

“Seeing the role everyone has played in supporting our most vulnerable children has been the greatest moment of my life. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of empathy and understanding. I am fully committed to this cause, and I will fight for the rest of my life for it, because in my mind, no child should ever go hungry in the United Kingdom. 

“I now call on the government to collaborate with the child food poverty taskforce to guarantee that no child does. As a collective we are so powerful and we all have a role to play in this, whether it be volunteering, donating, or as simple as a kind word.”

Anna Taylor, executive director at the Food Foundation, said: “This announcement shows the government is serious about tackling children’s food poverty - funding programmes worth more than £400m that will improve the lives of more than 1.7million children over the next 12 months.

“But we must keep in mind that a similar number of disadvantaged children will continue to miss out on the benefits of free school meals and healthy start because the qualifying income criteria are currently set far too low. Children’s food poverty, like the pandemic, will not go away until we have a lasting solution in place. We’ve started the journey today, thanks to the government’s commitment, and we need to see it through so we can end child food poverty.”

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